While standing in line in Green-Wood Cemetery last weekend, I overheard a group of friends joking nervously about confessing to murders and kidnappings before admitting that yes, they really did need to unburden their true secrets to a stranger. It was a superlative spring day for confession, and for enjoying the verdant charms of one of Brooklyn’s greenest places.
A cemetery is an excellent place to store secrets. After all, barring gossipy ghosts, the inhabitants are generally quiet and trustworthy. Starting last weekend and continuing through 2042, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle will be collecting the secrets from visitors in a public art installation called Here Lie the Secrets. Calle herself was accepting secrets on opening weekend, but the project, in collaboration with the public art organization Creative Time, will be in place for 25 years, during which visitors can write their innermost thoughts on a slip of paper and insert it into a slot at the bottom of a marble obelisk nestled on Green-Wood’s Bay Grove Hill. Your confessions, incidentally, will have one of the best, and least visited skyline views.
While Calle is an excellent confessor, smiling, soft-spoken, and serene, you don’t need to see her or wait on line to experience the installation. Visitors have all 25 years to deposit their secrets into the marble statue, which blends innocuously with the cemetery’s graves and monuments. The secrets are collected in a 55 gallon container beneath the surface. Once it fills, Calle will return to exhume the secrets and burn them in a cathartic ceremony. On the first day of the opening weekend, visitors were so eager to share that the obelisk’s slot jammed, and secrets had to be deposited into a temporary vessel while the jam was fixed.
A Creative Time staffer I spoke to said Calle will be returning periodically to engage with the secrets, but could not say when that would be. She’s a perk, but the installation, and the cemetery itself, are well worth regular visits all on their own.
Many of those in attendance on opening weekend were first time visitors to the cemetery, but all around me people were exclaiming at how green, beautiful, and quiet the place was, how strangely soothing it is to be surrounded by marble and stone and those in the midst of their final rest. I can see making regular pilgrimages over the spring, summer, and into fall. The ritual of approaching the obelisk and depositing a piece of paper with a secret, or even just a fear, written on it is freeing.
Sophie Calle has been seeking secrets her entire career. “I didn’t know what to do with my life so I started following people,” she told The Guardian in 2009. In her project Address Book, she called every number in a found book to try to create a portrait of its owner. For another project, she followed a man she met at a party to Venice, tracked him down at a hotel, and then persuaded a neighbor across the street to let her photograph him as he came and went. With those projects she has to seek out the information. Now, perhaps because the world feels uncertain, perhaps because we’re all looking for ways to feel just a little lighter, when Calle requests that New Yorkers come to Green-Wood Cemetery to share their innermost secrets, they happily flock.
Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-wood Cemetery, presented by Creative Time, is on view through 2042 at Green-Wood Cemetery.